The Power of Joy
Am I seeing the real truth?
I probably won’t be able to see for most of August because I’m getting eye surgery, which might be a good thing because I also can’t wear eye make up for the whole month, and I sure as heck don’t want to see that! But there are other things I’d really rather not see right now, like the startling changes every day in my dad, who is now on hospice.
All of this has me thinking about what we see and don’t see in our hearts, our relationships, and our regrets. My dad doesn’t really see the reality of his dire prognosis. He says he still has a feeling of hope “in the back of my heart.” Maybe, he says, he will live one or two more years. Maybe this denial to see the truth is actually the way he is protecting himself, allowing himself to hold it together, to soothe his aching. Some would argue he should be forced to face the truth. As the daughter, I’m still trying to navigate these strange waters of me, being the one in charge, and him, being the one small and vulnerable.
What do we chose to see and what do we chose to be blind to? And why do we do these things? I keep saying to the kids, when I’m where my dad is, this is what I want and this is what I don’t want, but my dad said those things too. Now that he’s there, he’s waffling because of that darn difficulty of taking a step back and really seeing the situation as it is, and not as you want or hope it will be.
Would I really chose not to see what is happening with him? Am I, in fact, seeing the real truth? I’m not sure. I’m trying to. Actually, I think his suffering has brought new complexities to our relationship that I am thankful for, things that weren’t there before, but are now. Would I give that up in exchange for a cleansing of this awful process?
No one wants to face emotional pain and so it seems sometimes we get really good at putting it into a nice, neat, package so we can put a pretty bow on the outside and call what’s on the inside denial. Ignorance really can be bliss, after all. What things in your life have you done this for? I know I’ve done it more than a time or two.
How much of the truth do we truly allow ourselves to see, and how much do we deny ourselves? Is it possible in difficulty to keep our eyes wide open amidst the cyclone of feelings about the past, the present, and the future? For now, as much as I can, I’m trying to keep my eyes wide open to all of it, because I think in this way I can make decisions based on who I want to be as a daughter and a person. I’m trying to see only what’s right in front of me. It’s too overwhelming to get too far ahead, or too far behind for that matter.
My eye surgery will be a miracle. That will probably be the only miracle that August will bring for me and my family. I’d say one miracle is pretty, darn good. But we will see, hopefully with clarity and goodness.
The Power of Why
Our brains tell us stories
One of my favorite sayings is “what we look for is what we see.” And there’s scientific proof that this is true. Our brains are always looking to confirm our beliefs. It’s called confirmation bias. However, our brains are also hardwired to protect us. Our amygdala (the “threat detector”) is constantly scanning our environment to assess our level of safety and alert us to any signs of trouble. It's a basic survival mechanism with the goal of protecting us and keeping us safe.
Our brain shuts down as a protective response to keep us safe when our nervous system is overloaded. Stressful stimuli cause a physiological and psychological response pushing us into survival mode. This mode involves the release of stress hormones and the activation of our stress-response systems. Our mind and body become focused on combating danger and are often misaligned with reality.
In many ways, our “reality” is constructed by your brain. Science tells us our brains are “story-making machines.” They continuously concoct elaborate narratives in order to make sense of the unimaginably large amount of information we consume each day. The stories our brains tell are influenced by our life experience, such that they use our past experiences and connect them with our current situation to construct our reality. Our brains also unconsciously bend our perception of reality to meet our desires or expectations.
According to Dr. Brene Brown, “We are a meaning-making species. We make up stories because having complete information is a self-protective survival skill.” Our brains are keeping a running tab on reality through an internal fact-checking system. The fact-checker constantly monitors our previous expectations and predictions about the world, and uses this information to inform our stories. In the absence of data, our brains will make up the end of our story so we can have closure and feel complete.
Dr. Robert Burton, neurologist and novelist, explains that our brain rewards us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns. Our brain recognizes the familiar beginning–middle–end structure of a story and rewards us for clearing up the ambiguity. Unfortunately, our stories don’t need to be accurate to be rewarded.
Our brains tell us all sorts of stories to fill in the blanks of life. For example, if you have an encounter with a friend or loved one, and you are picking up vibes that they are mad at you, your brain starts filling in the blanks and begins to come up with reasons why they are angry with you, when in fact, they may just be having a bad day. When our brains mislead us in this way, The Work, by Byron Katie comes in handy.
Byron Katie’s process includes asking yourself four questions:
- Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
- Can you absolutely know for certain that it's true? (Yes or no.)
- How do you react (what happens) when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without the thought?
Practicing The Work, and questioning your stories is a wonderful way of keeping your mind in check, and preventing a downward spiral. It’s a practice that takes practice. And like any other practice, the more you do it, the easier it gets!